A review of Fire to Fire by Mark Doty

by Jerome Gagnon

Fire to Fire: New and Selected Poems
by Mark Doty
Hardcover: 336 pages, ISBN-13: 978-0060752477, March 2008

How does it feel to win the National Book Award for Poetry? Mark Doty, the 2008 winner for Fire to Firecouldn’t quite believe it at first. “Every now and then I say to Paul (his partner), ‘I just won the National Book Award,’ and he nods or says yes, understanding why I need to do this. I’m working on making this real,” the fifty-five year old poet and teacher wrote in his blog shortly after hearing the announcement.

But the news surely came as no surprise to his many devoted readers, writing students and colleagues. From his highly accomplished first book, Turtle Swan (1987), to the well-received School of Arts (2005), Doty has mapped the geography of the heart and mind in poems that often leave us with a sense of wonder at what he has encoded on the page. Spanning over twenty years and seven volumes, plus a generous selection of new poems, Fire to Fire covers a wide range of subjects including tattoos, apparitions, Delft tiles, AIDS, children’s art, sunflowers, a dead rabbit, homophobic graffiti, the love of dogs, gay nightclubs, a fallen church steeple, and a late night flight that ends in an emergency landing, to name just a few.

In their citation for the award, the judges observed that the poems “gently invite us to share their ferocious compassion. With their praise for the world and their fierce accusation, their defiance and applause, they combine grief and glory in a music of crazy excelsis. In this generous retrospective volume a gifted young poet has become a master.”

With the title poem of his first volume, Turtle, SwanDoty demonstrates his mastery of the lyric tradition. Although very much of its time and place in its particulars, the poem evinces several of the components of classical lyricism as defined by Anne Carson in her study, Eros, the Bittersweet. It portrays the dualistic nature of love as bittersweet, that is, both painful and pleasurable at once; it depicts a sense of lack or absence; it establishes a triangulation between lover, beloved, and that which thwarts them; it invokes the notion of growing wings; it depicts anxiety bordering on obsession; and it displays a fragile self that requires protection. Protection from what? From the god of desire who wields forces that can crush the self.

“Turtle, Swan” is an ambitious poem, one in which the poet addresses his lover, recalling in language that alternates between plain narrative and indelible images, their shared memories of sighting two “unexpected travelers” along the back road leading to their house. It’s structured in clearly articulated segments, much as the wayward swan itself: “…white architecture / rippling like a pond’s rain-pocked skin, / beak lifting to hiss at my approach. / Magisterial, set down in elegant authority, / he let us know exactly how close we might come.”

The poet temporarily abandons the subject of the swan but goes on to describe the couple’s efforts to herd a turtle off the road so that it wouldn’t become “…a target / for kids who’d delight in the crush / of something slow with the look / of primeval invulnerability.” If we regard the swan as a foreshadow of the emotional rigors of eros, an elegant emissary who hisses “to let us know how close we might come,” we might also consider the turtle with its “lapidary prehistoric sleep of shell” as symbolic of a prelapsarian self, one that requires protection if it is to survive the onslaughts that threaten to transform it to a mere “stain” or a “blotch.”

Along with these two memories, the poet spins a third tale in the poem, of an excursion to the movies with his partner. Surprisingly, this innocent pleasure brings up childhood fears of abandonment, but also the specter of disease and death.

…In the movies of this small town

I stopped for popcorn while you went ahead

to claim seats. When I entered the cool dark

I saw the straight couples everywhere,

no single silhouette who might be you.

I walked those two aisles too small

to lose anyone and thought of a book

I read in seventh grade, Stranger than Science,

in which a man simply walked away,

at a picnic, and was,

in the act of striding forward

to examine a flower, gone.

By the time the previews ended

I was nearly in tears – then realized

the head of one-half the couple in the first row

was only your leather jacket propped in the seat

that would be mine. I don’t think I remember

anything of the first half of the movie.

I don’t know what happened to the swan. I read

every week of some man’s lover showing

the first symptoms, the night sweat

or casual flu, and then the wasting begins

and the disappearance a day at a time.

The speaker’s childhood memory of a story in which a man disappears establishes the context for lack, a necessary component for eros to thrive. Conflated with his (mis)perception of his own leather jacket as a person’s head, this memory also arouses separation anxiety, something close to mania. The detail of the jacket is significant because it reiterates the classical notion of eros as a split within the lover’s mind or soul, a chasm between the imagination and the actual. However, the lines that follow reveal the poet’s anxiety as something more than imaginative lovesickness; they introduce the specter of AIDS and the fear of death.

A shadow of the avian emissary from the first lines returns in the last stanza when the poet says, “I don’t know what happened to the swan.” Chronology – ordinary reality – is challenged when endings are unknown, when eros is lived out in a time of plague. But the poet has tactics of his own to deal with that which threatens to come between lover and beloved. Logos allows him to stand outside time in the poem, to frame desire, memory and fear, and to achieve a precarious balance. But the reprieve for the poet is decidedly bittersweet, inspiring painful rhapsody. In the poem’s closing lines, he again invokes the swan and the turtle, comparing them to his beloved:

…I don’t know what happened to the swan;

I don’t know if the stain on the street

was our turtle of some other. I don’t know

where these thing we meet and know briefly,

as well as we can or they will let us,

go. I only know that I do not want you

– you with your white and muscular wings

that rise and ripple beneath or above me,

your magnificent neck, eyes the deep mottled autumnal colors

of polished tortoise – I do not want you ever to die.

The concluding lines introduce a profound variation on classical triangulation. Not only does something come between lover and beloved, threatening the sanctity of the self’s familiar boundaries, but eros itself is threatened with annihilation. Not only is this particular love relationship in danger, but all current and future relationships are in jeopardy because of the epidemic. How can we love with the fear of death omnipresent? This is a haunting question because it brings the paradox of eros out of the area of speculation, making it all too real. While we may speculate that what we project onto the beloved is not all that the beloved really is – that there is a difference between our imaginings and the actual – to be reminded that the body, too, is unreliable, that we’re subject to decay and temporality, compounds the paradox.

When the hissing swan of the opening lines transforms into an image of the beloved in the poem’s final, dramatic lines, we fear that even his “white and muscular wings” – emblematic of the erotic imagination – won’t be enough to forestall the ultimate disappearance. Sadly, they’re never enough. Our attachments are, inevitably, the source of pain and loss. But they’re also the source of our joy. In his heart-wrenching memoir, Heaven’s Coast (1997), which chronicles his relationship with his partner, Wally Roberts, who died of complications from AIDS in 1994, Doty writes:

Christmas eve, I give him packages which I open for him, since the bows and paper represent more labor than he could manage…He says he wishes he had something for me to open, but I don’t want anything except to have him here. There’s nothing more he could give me than his life, right now, being here with me.

Like many of the passages in Doty’s memoir, this one expresses emotional transparency, but it also suggests that the gift of presence – fully attending to and sharing the moment with another – is a kind of transcendence. Put another way, suffering may be transformed by compassion, desire transformed by divinity.

In a recent interview with critic Christopher Hennessy, Doty stated that:

Seriously, the body for me has been so much a location of instability, having lived through the crisis years of the AIDS epidemic. The body had been, and continues to be, the source of pleasure, much of what made matter and life worth living. But then it also became the location of so much danger and uncertainty, a place where there was so little control. That was very much reflected in my work. And now that you point it out, this part of a physical ongoingness is something that very much possesses me. I think the poems in Source are (asking): is the self bounded in me and my old bag of skin, or does it reside in the common human whole?

The longing for spiritual awareness, for communion with the whole, elevates Doty’s work, at times joining eros with what we might call the ineffable. Remarking on this longing, critic Sarah Kennedy has observed that Doty’s poetry reveals a “a blending of physical and transcendent love.” She cites the following lines from the poem “63rd Street Y,” from Bethlehem in Broad Daylight (1991): “Divinity includes desire/ – why else create a world / like this one, dawn fogging / the park in gold. …” It’s a deep, contemplative query worth struggling with and, if there are any satisfactory answers they’re not likely to be found in formulations of dogma. “Is the phenomenal world of matter separate from spirit, or is it deity itself?” “Is spirit transcendent, or is it both immanent and transcendent?” These are questions of theology, not the stuff of poetry, and, as Doty observes in his best-selling memoir Dog Years (2005):

Maybe we should be glad, finally, that the word can’t go where the heart can, not completely. It’s freeing, to think there’s always an aspect of us outside the grasp of speech, the common stuff of language. Love is common, too, absolutely so – and yet our words for it only point to it; they do not describe it. They are indicators of something immense: the word love
is merely a sign that means something like: This way to the mountain.

In the title poem from Source (2001), Doty celebrates his faith in paradox in plain-spoken, but far reaching, language. How to describe what arises when we read lines such as these, about a lonely encounter off a country road with three fenced horses?

…Would you believe me

if I said that beneath them a clear channel

ran from the three horses to the place

they’d come from, the cool womb

of nothing, cave at the heart

of the world, deep and resilient and firmly set

at the core of things? Not emptiness,

not negation, but a generous cold nothing:

the breathing space out of which new shoots

are propelled to the grazing mouths,

out of which horses themselves are tendered

into the new light…

Here eros is personified in the form of three horses who are borne from “…the cool womb/ of nothing, cave at the heart / of the world….” Just as the horses come “nearer the wire fence…to see what I’d brought them,”, so, too, the poet tells us, does he reach out. Perhaps he’s brought apples, which suggests Adam and Eve partaking of the apple of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. But apples also suggest the notion of reaching out for the much-desired object on the highest branch, a familiar erotic motif in ancient Greek poetry. When the poet invites us to taste the unamed fruit “from the inside,” it’s clear that we’re no longer meant to appraise the poem with a backward glance. Instead, we’re invited to leave “then” behind, to enter into the sanctuary of now. What’s the meaning of this “now?” To explain, Carson refers to Sokrates: “For Sokrates, the moment when eros begins is a glimpse of the immortal ‘beginning’ that is a soul…” and, “when you enter ‘now’ you remember what it is like to be really alive, as gods are.” But how to compose a poem that captures this glorious now?

In his article, “The Poet on the Poem,” Doty discusses his latest work in Fire to Fire:

I’ve written a theory of narrative, of the soul, a theory of economics, of incompletion, and five theories of beauty, which I keep returning to because I never seem to get it right. These are discursive poems, casual in their surface and often comic, but I hope they sneak up on their larger engagements, their deeper worries.

One of them beckons like eros itself. It’s titled “Theory of Incompletion” and in it the poet describes the act of painting his apartment while, on the radio “the gorgeous rising tiers” of Handel’s Semele cascade “as if baroque music were a series of waterfalls “pouring in the wrong direction, perpetually up / and up, twisting toward the empyrean…” It’s a delightful tour de force that can be seen as a metaphor for the creative process, and in which the poet experiences “the rapture / of denied closure.” Written in the present tense, it’s a departure from his earlier pieces which frequently meander in and out of the realm of memory. Yet, even though it’s written in the present tense, the poem necessarily employs a familiar ruse. The trick is, if it was an actual rendering of the present, the poet would have to have composed it while painting atop the ladder, a fact that’s not mentioned in the text. A more likely scenario is that the poem was written after the experience. In other words, the poem is a re-creation of the now. It can’t help but be, of course. Even so, it convinces.

As Doty reaches between memory and the fictive now with his latest theory he’s located just as firmly in the arena of eros as if he were lamenting the absence of his beloved Wally in “Turtle Swan,” staring out the windows and across the courtyard of the YMCA in “63rd Street Y,” or reaching out to connect to the trio of horses in “Source.” So, too, are his readers, who seek to taste the poems “from the inside.” Like Sokrates, we’re “in love with the wooing,” Carson suggests, even as we reach out between a text and the imagination. “Incompletion” closes with the lines: “And then there’s barely a beat / of a pause before we move on to Haydn, / and I’m nowhere near the end of my work.”

That’s reassuring news for those of us who consider Doty one of our finest poets, one whose songs animate the bittersweet paradox of eros as poignantly as Keats’ nightingale.

About the reviewer: Jerome Gagnon received an M.A. in English and Creative Writing from San Francisco State University. His articles have appeared on a regular basis in the San Francisco Chronicle, as well as in other periodicals. He has written one chapbook of poetry, “Pages From the Blue Sun.”